Friday, June 18, 2004

The Moon is Blue

F. Hugh Herbert's The Moon is Blue was a hit Broadway play in the early '50s. It's become kind of a joke, mostly because of the slightly ridiculous "controversy" surrounding the movie version: Otto Preminger, who directed the movie and had staged the play on Broadway, decided to break down the Hollywood studios' production code by refusing to remove the word "virgin," released it without the Production Code seal of approval, and proved that people would go to see a movie without the seal of approval. It was another big step in the ongoing breakdown of the Studio System and in the decline of movies as a true mass phenomenon. The point of the Production Code was to make movies "morally acceptable" to the entire country; the point of abandoning the Production Code was that it was becoming almost impossible to make movies that would appeal to everyone, and so it no longer made sense to try and make a movie simultaneously acceptable to the city slicker in New York and the little old lady in Dubuque. Hence the decline of the Production Code and the rise of "niche" entertainment. The Moon is Blue was an appropriate place to start, because as a Broadway comedy with a very New York sensibility, it was a niche piece, dealing with "sophisticated," urban attitudes toward sex. Ten years earlier, Hollywood's instinct would have been to de-emphasize that sensibility and make it more "universal"; there was a fear that a movie would fail if it tried to deal with niche subjects (as Variety famously headlined about the failure of "rural" movies in rural areas: "HIX NIX STIX PIX"). Preminger just decided to keep that sensibility intact -- and in doing so, he exploded the myth that Hollywood movies couldn't succeed unless they had cross-country appeal.

But because the movie that brought down the Production Code is so innocuous, containing nothing worse than the words "virgin" and "mistress," The Moon is Blue has become, as I said, kind of a joke. It was the subject of one of the few good episodes M*A*S*H did in its last season, where Hawkeye and B.J. try to get a copy of the film, thinking it must be a "hot" movie because it was banned. The punchline is their disappointment at discovering that it's just a traditional light comedy. Well, The Moon is Blue, the original play, is a traditional light comedy, and then again it isn't.

(Note: what I'm discussing below is the play; the movie, which Herbert also wrote, is quite faithful to the play, but I haven't seen it in years.)

The basic plot of The Moon is Blue is thin even for a three-act Broadway comedy. Don Gresham (Barry Nelson in the play), a successful architect, meets a plain-spoken young woman named Patty O'Neill (Barbara Bel Geddes). She tells him at their first meeting that she is a virgin and intends to stay that way:

Look, it's very simple. Let's face it -- going to a man's apartment almost always ends in one of two ways: Either the girl's willing to lose her virtue or she fights for it. I don't want to lose mine, and I think it's vulgar to fight for it. So I always put my cards on the table. Don't you think that's sensible?

This piques Don's interest, and he takes her to his apartment, promising "Affection, but no passion." Patty keeps asking him questions about his sex life ("do you have a mistress?"), which irritates Don a bit:

DON: Why are you so preoccupied with sex?
PATTY (indignant): Who? Me?
DON: Yes -- you.
PATTY: Do you really think I am?
DON: Well, you're always asking people if they plan seduction, or whether they're bored with virgins, or if they have a mistress. If that isn't being preoccupied with sex, I'd like to know what is.
PATTY: You may be right. (Brightly) But don't you think it's better for a girl to be preoccupied with sex than occupied?

The only other important character in the play (there's one other character, Patty's father, an Irish cop who shows up to belt Don in the eye) is David Slater (Donald Cook), the fortyish, Southern playboy father of Don's ex-girlfriend Cynthia. David is the sort of guy who clearly wasn't cut out to be a father, and looks and feels ridiculous being the father of a grown-up daughter; he shows up half-heartedly vowing to "horsewhip" Don in retaliation for something he did to Cynthia (who never appears in the play). It turns out that what Cynthia is angry about is that Don didn't sleep with her, and David, the ultimate irresponsible parent, gets angry about it too:

DAVID: Let me ask you this: when a pretty girl offers herself to a man -- under conditions such as you've described -- what would stop him?
DON: Apart from moral barriers, which we needn't go into, nothing if the man's in love. Then he doesn't mind being committed.
DAVID: Correct me if I'm mistaken, but weren't you sort of engaged to her?
DON: There is an important distinction between an engagement and a commitment.
DON: As man to man -- I was unwilling to lose the intiative -- I've given it a lot of thought.
DAVID: Intellectual bastard, aren't you?
DON: When you're carrying the ball you don't like to lose it, on a fumble, in a casual bed.
DAVID: I'm not a football fan, but is it customary for the ball carrier to function also as the referee? Who blew the whistle?
PATTY (entering): What are you fighting about now? Football?
DAVID: Why, yes. We were just discussing an incompleted pass.

That's the end of the first act, and about all we've learned is that Patty's a virgin, Don considers sexual relations to entail a commitment, and David thinks of sex as more of a casual thing. In other words, there's no real plot, but a lot of talking: about sex, attitudes to sex, what it means to have sex and what it means not to have sex. Don and David are opposites, and they are both intrigued by Patty's self-proclaimed virtuousness. To Don, the stolid hero, Patty represents an ideal, the virtuous heroine, the girl who won't put out, and just as Patty proclaims her own virtue to everyone who will listen, Don proclaims his own virtue by loudly stating his honorable intentions:

DON: I'd hate to have a mind like yours. Haven't you ever wanted to spend the evening alone with a girl without trying to make her? (David suddenly sits down) What's the matter with you?
DAVID: I'm trying to think....

When Don concludes, through the obligatory Wacky Misunderstandings, that Patty really is That Kind of Girl after all, he gets so disillusioned that he accuses her of being a "professional virgin," exploiting the appearance of innocence for her own advantage. But meanwhile, David, the playboy, the spokesman for promiscuity, the cynic who first suggests to Don that Patty may not be as innocent as she seems -- David becomes more and more convinced that Patty really is innocent, and more willing to accept the notion that innocence exists:

You know, there's a popular theory that nice little girls are always led astray or seduced by nasty old men. It isn't so. for every nice girl seduced by a nasty old man, there are fifty betrayed by inexperienced nice young men. Only nasty old men have an instinctive respect for innocence.

By the end of the play David has been shaken out of his cynicism enough that he actually starts to take seriously his fatherly responsibilities, and in particular the idea that a father's job is to teach his children to be virtuous, even if he's no good at it:

DAVID: Spoke to [Cynthia] for an hour about hell fire and damnation... Never batted an eyelash. Laughed at me. Of course I found it hard to keep a straight face. Guess you have to believe in it yourself if you want to put the fear of God in anybody else. Bawled the hell out of that girl.
DON: Isn't that rather belated -- this making a noise like a father?
DAVID: You know, that's exactly what Cynthia said. Stopped me cold. Good point. That's why I locked her in her bedroom.

All the best Broadway light comedies succeed by putting some kind of original spin on traditional comedy stories, and The Moon is Blue is no exception: instead of the virtuous young lovers triumphing over the wicked older man, each of the three characters in this triangle learn something unexpected. David learns the virtue of virtue. Don comes to understand that his seeming respect for virtue was really a kind of cynicism (a willingness to think the worst of Patty the moment he had any reason to think anything less than the best of her), while Patty understands, at least momentarily, that her preoccupation with sex is really just a cover-up for her desire to be occupied with it:

PATTY: I'm fed up with being...
DAVID: The status to which I presume you're referring needn't be permanent. There comes a time, my child, when you should follow your feminine instincts -- when understanding is more precious than virtue.
PATTY: I know, but we've only known each other for such a little time. Wouldn't he lose all respect for me if...
DAVID: For a gift one is always beholden. Goodnight, Patty. You're a nice kid.

After this conversation, David leaves, and Patty, after much deliberation, knocks on the door of Don's room. She knocks again, with no answer, and is about to knock again when she gets cold feet and leaves. So of course she doesn't actually have sex before marriage; it's a comedy in praise of virtue, after all, and for all that people mock the "sex comedies where no one has sex," it would be out of character for Patty to actually succumb or for Don to seduce her. But the fact that she is willing to succumb, or at least to consider it as an option, is what makes the happy (monogamous) ending possible. Patty's protestations of virtue are an emotional shield, a way of avoiding making a sexual or emotional commitment; when she knocks on Don's door, the staging -- and the placement of the moment as the climax of the third act, even though there's another short scene that follows it -- makes it clear that this is the moment when she agrees to make a commitment. That's the ethos of the traditional Broadway comedy: being willing to have sex implies being willing to make a commitment. So the characters are rewarded with a virtuous ending in return for being willing to at least consider giving up their virtue. Naughty thoughts as an enabler of traditional values: this paradoxical notion turns up in a lot of old Broadway comedies, and The Moon is Blue is one of the better examples of the genre, though the assumptions it's based on would probably make it unrevivable today. (Don at one point says, in all seriousness: "Nobody in their right mind would seriously object to being called a virgin, even if they weren't one." That would get an unintentional laugh today.)

F. Hugh Herbert -- I believe he adopted the "F. Hugh" on purpose, just for the sound of it -- was born in England and moved to the U.S. as a young man; like John Van Druten, he splits the difference between European and American mores, though Van Druten's characters, unlike Herbert's, actually have sex. Herbert also wrote a lot of movies, including one of the best movies of the '40s, the melancholy nostalgia-comedy Margie with Jeanne Crain. The only other thing I remember hearing about him is that he always employed a secretary and dictated every word of everything he ever wrote; he boasted of never using a pen or a typewriter to write anything.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review and discussion of the play. These "sex comedies" from the 1950s are curious little things, charming yet awkward.They tell us a lot about the mores of the time.